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Education


Amid scandals, Ohio tries to dissuade cheating on high-stakes third-grade reading tests
Online testing could reduce cheating that has shown up among teachers and administrators with other tests
Story by MANDIE TRIMBLE


 
Online standardized testing could keep people from changing answers on paper tests.
Courtesy of Alberto García
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Ohio third-graders are gearing up to take a reading test that could determine whether they are promoted or held back. In some states, high-stakes testing has driven educators to do the unthinkable: cheat. Safeguards are in place in Ohio to lessen the chance of a standardized testing scandal.

LISTEN: Protections against cheating by teachers, administrators

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High-stakes tests can be stressful for students. But they also can turn up the heat on teachers and administrators who have a lot riding on standardized tests: district report cards, school ratings, teacher evaluations, funding, even building closures.

While no Ohio district has been accused of cheating on standardized tests, state auditor Dave Yost found Columbus City Schools manipulated grade and attendance data to improve academic standing.

Some of the country’s largest districts went further.

Coaches and Erasers 
Atlanta and Philadelphia public schools are mired in cheating scandals. Atlanta district employees changed test answers. Philadelphia remains under investigation for cheating.

Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Kimberly Graham says investigators discovered wrong test answers were erased and correct ones filled in. Some students were advised on which answers to mark.

“One teacher described to me a situation where students, who were kind of on the bubble, you know -- close to being able to pass but not quite there -- were given the test together in the library," Graham says, "And basically they sat at a table with a school administrator who coached them which answers they should fill in.”

But Ohio education officials say they have safeguards in place to prevent cheating on standardized tests. Jim Wright, who directs the department’s office of curriculum and assessment, says the state conducts erasure analyses on standardized tests to look for signs of cheating.

He adds test booklets are continuously accounted for.

“Who is to have access, a chain of custody, so to speak, of those materials and so forth, who can have access to, rules around who can administer, all of those things are in place through an administrative code,” Jim Wright says.

Taking tests online
Next year, the state plans to move some standardized tests from traditional paper and pencil, to online exams which could reduce opportunities to cheat.

“The online will change some of the issues because it’s no longer worrying about the chain of custody and the paper getting shipped and getting lost and so forth," Wright says. "But there’s a whole new set of issues around the computer-based testing. So right now we have rules in place that have been there for a long time. Over the next few years as we transition, there are going to be some changes that we’re going to have to learn from.”

But the Pressure's Still On
University of Wisconsin-Madison associate professor James Wollack directs the institution’s testing and evaluation center.

“Individual educators have a lot on the line," Wollack says.

Wollack co-edited Handbook of Test Security which is used by districts across the country. He says online tests make it harder to cheat. And he adds companies that run computer-based exams have the infrastructure to look for irregular patterns.

“I certainly don’t want to use fear tactics as the only approach, but I think it’s perfectly reasonable to remind educators it’s increasingly hard to hide from this because the tools that are out there to detect it are getting better and better," Wollack says.

The scandals that erupted in Atlanta and Philadelphia have brought increased security and scrutiny on high-stakes tests.

High-stakes tests are here to stay. In Ohio, third-graders are preparing to take the state reading exam. Last fall, a third of them failed the test. Unless their scores improve, they risk being held back.

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